If I am, then I must know

July 05, 2000|By M. Ann Rutledge

SPARKS - The Supreme Court made no error in supporting Oregon's Measure 58, which allows adult adoptees the right to acquire their original birth certificates. Quite the contrary, it is the righting of a wrong that has been perpetuated for more than 50 years.

Adult adoptees are denied the constitutional rights to both due process and equal protection. They are denied access to documents pertinent to them as individuals, based solely on the fact that they are adoptees. The biological parents do not have to present evidence as to why they may need protection, nor even if they still desire it, years after the fact. This is prior restraint, and no other class of citizen is subject to such a sweeping violation of constitutional law.

Adoption records in most states were closed in the 1940s and 1950s, hardly a historical precedent. The closing of these records occurred when a new line of thinking took hold among social workers - that it would be better for an adoptee if the taint of illegitimacy could be forever removed.

Certainly, this was a noble idea at a time when bastardy was seen as a social burden to an individual and when social contempt for illegitimate children and their parents was rampant. A noble idea, however, is not necessarily constitutional, nor is it one that should stand when countered by new evidence and changing attitudes.

In recent years, the importance of genetics in an individual's development has become more fully understood and quantified. At the time adoption records were closed, it was believed that one's upbringing was paramount to genetics. We know now that they play at least equal roles, and some experts believe nature outweighs nurture. It is an ethical anomaly to tell adults that they are allowed to understand only 50 percent of who they are.

Falling adoption numbers for U.S.-born children have nothing to do with the current move to open adoption records for adult adoptees. There simply are fewer adoptable infants because of easy access to birth control, legal abortion and a shift in society's attitudes so that more single mothers now keep the children they bear. The rise of inter-country adoptions reflects the distinct preference of potential adoptive parents for infants or very young children.

Selective promises

The idea of birthmother confidentiality is largely based on anecdotal evidence, and there are very few such promises in writing. Full secrecy was not granted to every birthmother during the adoption process. In some jurisdictions, she was required to place public legal notices and in others she was required to appear in court for the adoption proceedings.

Further, many birthmothers were told that when their birth children reached the age of majority, they would have access to their records; many adoptive parents also were told this. I find it troubling that the adoption industry has been so selective regarding which oral "promises" they now wish to fulfill and which they choose to ignore.

I am a birthmother.

The people who claim such concern for me now are the very same who slid papers across a desk for me to sign, conveniently neglecting to tell me that it was in my best interest to seek legal counsel; that I should at least have my parents there, since I was a minor; that I had rights under state law and what those rights were; and who refused me copies of the legal documents I signed. My case is not unique; it was done this way for most birthmothers beginning in the1940s.

I was 13 years old that day in January, 1966. I sorely needed their protection then, and they failed me in many respects. I am a woman of 47 now, and I no longer need them to speak for me.

More than 500 birthmothers placed an ad in the Oregonian newspaper in 1998 in strong support of Measure 58. Only six birthmothers sought to overturn the measure in the courts. There are far more birthmothers who welcome healing and reunion than who wish to continue living in silent dread and denial.

For every adoptee, there is a birthmother and a birthfather, and our numbers are legion. It is far beyond time for the social work community to assist in our healing, instead of working against it.

Beyond the constitutional issue, there is much to be said for reunion of adult adoptees with biological families. Besides the importance of current medical information, there is another element: questions answered and blanks filled in. I reunited with my birth son just over two years ago, and we share a very close and loving relationship.

His adoptive family has made me part of their lives, as my family has welcomed their long-lost grandson, nephew and cousin. We all understand that it is love and nurture and nature in tandem that has made him the man he is today.

M. Ann Rutledge is a founding member of the National Council of Birthmothers.

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